A quiz team which wore Klu Klux Klan robes and carried a petrol can to a school fundraiser quickly apologised when their outfits made headlines.
It might be easy enough to take the apology and move on. But the incident made Avery Smith, a Black American living in New Zealand, wonder about the Klan’s history here.
The Klan is not some fictional boogeyman from a far-off place to me. My ancestors lived through the reign of fear and terror the KKK imposed on the American South.
Any depiction of the Klan brings with it a particular kind of racialised trauma for Black Americans, no matter where in the world it takes place. Cross burnings, night raids, murders and lynchings are all instantly invoked when someone wears those hoods.
The feeling I had when I saw those shitheads in Kaimai wasn’t fear. It was rage. Ancestral rage. The kind that’s embodied by me in this moment, but is not mine alone. Generations of my ancestors had to swallow their own rage to survive that horror, and so what I felt was for them too.
I also wondered why people in New Zealand would dress up like the KKK. It didn’t make sense to me. The history of New Zealand is so different to the United States. Why would a hate organisation formed in the years after the Civil War to limit Black people’s freedom have a place here? I was curious to learn about the history of the KKK in New Zealand when I saw that photo of the quiz team. What I found led me to both the KKK and homegrown white race organisations, and the ways in which our histories connect.
The year was 1916 and silent films were all the rage. The first blockbuster film from America had just arrived in New Zealand and droves of moviegoers filled theatres to see it. The film was called The Birth of a Nation, a long-form piece of racist propaganda casting the Klan as heroes subjugating Blacks in post-Reconstruction America. It was a white supremacist fantasy in celluloid and it received a warm reception in New Zealand.
In Christchurch, it was reported that the audience broke into applause during the epic battle scenes. One critic from the Taranaki Times gushed that the film was “one of the most inspiring sights ever shown on the screen”. Wellington District Schools Committee secretary Ernest Lilly got caught up in the fervour when he wrote for the New Zealand Times that “headmasters unanimously agree that the play (picture film) was instructive . . . and educational”. Indeed, the film provided a lesson on white supremacy.
In the years following, KKK groups formed in New Zealand, from Auckland to Christchurch. By 1923, membership was 1,000 people in Auckland alone.
The scene above with Klansmen riding in the streets to dozens of onlookers didn’t take place in the American South, but Karangahape Road, Auckland in 1922. The parade celebrated a capping carnival and promoted a play students were putting on called Blu Blux Blan.
A few months after this faux Klan gathering a man walked into shops in Mt Eden Auckland and declared: “Take warning, I am connected with the Ku Klux Klan, these four shops are going to be burned down.” Sure enough, the shops burned down and the KKK took responsibility. What started as a racist wet dream on a movie screen ended with businesses in flames.
Klan activity wasn’t restricted to Auckland. In 1923, two Indians who had recently moved to Christchurch received a chilling welcome. A note slipped under their door read: “Beware! Ku Klux Klan is here; you are watched; warning!” Given the burning in Auckland, they had every reason to be frightened.
But the Klan wasn’t the only, or even the first, white race organisation in New Zealand. Anti-Asian sentiment spawned the creation of the Asiatic Immigration Restriction League and the White Race League in 1907. Both groups were founded with the express intent to discriminate against Asians. The goal of the AIRL was to limit immigration, and the WRL advocated for a whites-only trading policy.
The WRL had further-reaching goals too. Their number one aim was the preservation and development of the white race, captured in their motto “A White New Zealand”.
White supremacist aspirations also drove the White New Zealand Defence League. Founded in 1925 in Pukekohe, this organisation was created in response to white farmers’ concerns about “Asiatics” (mostly Indian, but to some extent Chinese) buying farmland in the area.
The League sought policies to forbid Asians from buying or leasing land in the area. The post-WWI economic slump had hit New Zealand hard. Blaming the economic crisis on Asians gave these farmers a scapegoat. An “Asiatic Invasion” was seen to be upending the established social order and creating unfair competition, although the extent of the “invasion” was more imagined than a documented reality.
The League fanned the flames of a moral panic. It insinuated that the character and even hygiene of Asian people posed a “risk of contamination” to white children.
Interestingly, the League further claimed that these policies were also there to protect Māori. Indian men were made out to be taking advantage of vulnerable young Māori girls. Marriage and relationships between Indians and Māori were thought to be a “dilution of the [Māori] race”.
Fears of half-caste citizenry caused the League much alarm. “The native race, together with our own, is intermingling with them, the result being a half-caste citizen of the future . . . The warning note is sounded to be up and doing to protect civilisation from the rising tide of colour . . . The doors of the Dominion must be bolted and barred against Asiatics [sic].”
If Māori in Pukekohe needed to be protected from anyone, it was from the white farmers. The accommodation they provided for Māori farm labourers was abhorrent, and according to a government inquiry, the Ngata Report, “totally unfit for human occupation”. Living conditions were overcrowded, unsanitary, with poor water access, ventilation and lighting. The government was aware of these horrendous conditions, which led to an increase in Māori mortality. As Robert Bartholomew, who wrote No Māori Allowed says, they “chose cheap vegetables over the health of Māori”.
But poor working conditions weren’t the only problem for Māori in Pukekohe. From the mid-1920s to the early 1960s, there was racial segregation between whites and Māori in the town. Māori couldn’t get haircuts (except from one barber), weren’t allowed upstairs at the local theatre, couldn’t get a taxi ride, had to give up seats for whites on the bus, weren’t served at most bars, and only had one day a week they were allowed to go to the pool. Pukekohe also has the dubious distinction of having New Zealand’s only segregated school, which operated from 1952-1957. White parents cited hygiene concerns and Māori slowing down instruction as reasons to keep the children separated. It’s not a stretch to say these conditions are reminiscent of those in the American Jim Crow South.
What happened in Pukekohe can be viewed as the continuation of a grudge settlers carried against Māori since the New Zealand Wars. The Battle of Pukekohe took place on September 14, 1863. On that day, a small group of settlers barricaded themselves in a fortified church and held off a much larger group of opposing Māori forces until reinforcements arrived. Māori retreated and the settlers claimed victory. Although not a confrontation of strategic significance, it was lauded as an important moral win for the settlers, and even, as it would be spun later, a miracle.
As the European settlers began to recount the story, the narrative became one of Māori attack, of settler heroism in the face of aggression, and then, finally, of Māori cowardice and retreat. Stories of a white kererū acting as a guardian angel to the settlers embellished the tale.
The church stands to this day, a monument to the victory settlers claimed over Māori, the bullet holes a testament to their bravery in the face of attack.
But the narrative itself is full of holes.
When David Simmons, a New Zealand anthropologist, visited the church he found most of the “bullet holes” in the church were actually made by a drill. Still, the church served to cement the myth of this battle in the mind of settlers, and as Simmons surmises: “Out of this myth came the justification for the system of apartheid practised in this town.” The mistreatment Māori faced in this town occurred because they resisted colonisation.
At its core, the story of this battle served to perpetuate the myth of European superiority and Māori savagery. The narrative aligned with a settler point of view. Rather than seeing Māori as protecting their ancestral homeland from invaders, it cast them as nasty insurgents impeding progress.
So it’s colonisation that is the thread that brings all of this together — the KKK, the White Race League, the White New Zealand Defence League and segregation of Māori at Pukekohe — because colonisation relied on the ideology of white supremacy to make it work.
You can’t kill people and steal their land if you think of them as equal to you. No, they have to be inferior, less than human, uncivilised, savage. Then such treatment isn’t only acceptable, it is justified.
The colonisation of America was the reason my ancestors were brought from Africa to America to toil on land that was taken from Native Americans. It was colonisation that led the British to the shores of New Zealand in the quest for more land. As the British arrived in New Zealand, they brought with them their ideas about race and their belief in the inherent superiority of whites.
That’s why it was so easy for the imported American concept of the KKK to take hold in New Zealand. The ideology of white supremacy was already here, honed by the ways the country was colonised and made “a white country”.
The belief that New Zealand belonged to whites made it confronting when people from Asia came here to make a living. The economic competition posed by these immigrants threatened the image New Zealand had of itself. Colonisation and its underlying ideological justifications go a long way towards explaining how white race organisations took hold here in the 20th century.
I take a certain comfort in knowing this history. Understanding how deep these roots go helps me to understand at least how we ended up with this group dressed up in KKK hoods at a quiz night. It’s an event that arises from actions that people took long before any of us were born. It’s a history we all live with, and a history none of us should forget.
I hope we all can agree that this kind of behaviour mustn’t be brushed off or normalised as a jokey mistake, easily remedied with apology. We should face it head-on, and use it as a chance to expose our shared histories of white supremacy, and start having some long-needed and difficult conversations.
The author acknowledges the works of Zarahn Southon, Jaqueline Leckie, Tina Ngata, Arama Rata, Dilwin Santos, and Robert Bartholomew for informing this piece.
Dr Avery Smith is a Black American of mixed ancestry who descends from the American South as well as Southern Germany. She is sociologist and passionate educator, who studies the ways race, culture, whiteness and settler colonialism impact education. Avery currently works at Victoria University of Wellington, and previous to moving to Aotearoa was a school leader and educator in Seattle, Washington. As Tangata Tiriti Avery is committed to continually improving as a Treaty Partner and upholding tino rangatiratanga.
See also Grand battles and untrammelled racism by Zarahn Southon.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.